FAA Issues Roadmap for Unmanned Aerial Systems


On November 7, 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued long awaited plans for integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into the National Airspace System. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), also commonly referred to as “drones,” have emerged in the public’s awareness in recent years primarily because of the U.S. military’s use of them in the war on terror. U.S. military research and use of UAV actually dates back decades and arguably as early as 1917. [1]  Today, UAS represent an important new frontier for commercial aviation. UAV can range from the size of an insect to a large commercial airplane.  They can remain aloft days and be operated at a fraction of the cost of a manned aircraft. Commercial applications may include broadcasting, crop surveys and photography among other activities. The development of civil UAV operations in the United States has long been inhibited by the absence of a suitable regulatory framework. The FAA’s newly released plans reveal how the agency will integrate UAS in the National Airspace System. The FAA released the following:

  1. The First Annual Roadmap (“Roadmap”) for integration of UAS;
  2. A Comprehensive Plan prepared by the Joint Planning and Development    Office; and
  3. The FAA’s Final Privacy Requirements for its UAS test site program.

The Roadmap identifies many of the technical distinctions between manned aircraft and UAS and anticipates rulemaking activity the agency will undertake to integrate UAS. According to the FAA, its current regulations do not consider many of the unique aspects of UAS operations. As an example, the Roadmap indicates that certification requirements, airworthiness standards and other criteria will be established for UAS control stations and data links—in addition to standards for the UAV themselves and their pilots. This would represent a meaningful expansion in scope of the FAA’s certification and oversight activity with a concomitant demand on its resources. It will be important for stakeholders to monitor and also participate in FAA rulemaking proceedings.

The Comprehensive Plan is a high-level document setting forth interagency goals and a notional timeline for integration. Other agencies mentioned in the plan include the Department of Homeland Security, NASA and the Department of Defense. Among other things, the Comprehensive Plan contemplates Routine Civil UAS Operations by 2020. It also calls for specific administrative actions such as approvals of ground based and also airborne sense-and-avoid operations for UAS.

The Final Privacy Requirements address what standards will apply at six test sites that will be chosen by the FAA by the end of calendar year 2013. In essence, the FAA declined to establish uniform privacy standards for UAS test sites. Instead, each test site operator, which must be a “public entity,” will be obliged to adopt privacy policies, make them publicly available and have a mechanism for receiving comments among other requirements. The FAA expects that state and local agencies will enforce test site operators’ policies. Privacy concerns have loomed large in the public discourse about the advent of civil UAS operations and may continue to be the focal point of debate as UAS are integrated into the nation’s airspace.

In the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, Congress required the FAA to adopt rules and develop plans to begin integrating UAS into the National Airspace System, safely and efficiently, by 2015.  Currently, FAA permits public entities to operate UAVs only though a Certificate of Authorization and only for certain purposes. The FAA’s next step, scheduled for the first quarter of 2014, is to publish a proposed rule for small UAVs (55 pounds and under).   

[1] Jeremiah Gertler, Cong. Research Serv., R42136, U.S. Unmanned Aerial Systems, (2012) at 1.   


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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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